Several law enforcement agencies in Montgomery County are investigating after a group of activists flagged social-media posts by police officers that they deemed insensitive and, in some cases, racially offensive.
The collection of posts on Facebook came to light Wednesday, when first reported by Philly Voice. The revelation prompted internal investigations in at least eight agencies, top officials in those departments told The Inquirer.
Legal researchers in the county cataloged more than 100 posts they considered offensive and brought them to the attention of law enforcement officials, said Emily Baker-White, executive director of the Plain View Project, the group that flagged similar posts by Philadelphia police officers earlier this summer.
The research into the suburban social-media posts began with a tip from a man whose uncle is an officer in West Norriton, Baker-White said. She declined to name the man, but said the posts he identified led her to alert a colleague in Montgomery County, who began broader research.
That researcher, through Baker-White, declined to speak with The Inquirer, and declined to share the posts. However, a law enforcement source in the county shared some of the material the group found offensive.
In a Facebook post, a state police trooper stationed at a city barracks near the county line appeared in blackface at a Halloween party. Another post by a former West Conshohocken police officer now working for the state Attorney General’s Office likened opioid users arrested in Kensington to “animals.”
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday that the posts in question “do not reflect the views” of the office and “would not be tolerated.” The employee, who does not work in a law enforcement capacity for the office, has been disciplined, she said, and the posts have been removed.
Most of the flagged posts were written by municipal police officers. The subject matter varied. In one, an officer from West Norriton mocked the appearance of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. In another, an officer from Lower Merion shared a news article that called the exonerated Central Park 5 suspects “murderous thugs.”
The Inquirer tried to contact the officers about their posts, but they either could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said Wednesday that his office will not tolerate discrimination, and called on each department involved to "handle any offensive post according to their own policies and procedures.”
“The entire law enforcement community is sworn to protect and serve every resident of Montgomery County — not ‘some residents,’ not ‘only certain groups,' " Steele said in a statement. “We are here to protect and serve every resident and to see that justice is done without consideration to a person’s race, color, sex, religious creed, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ancestry, handicap or disability.”
The posts’ distribution drew comparisons to a similar incident in June, when the Plain View Project created a database of hundreds of social-media posts from police departments in eight jurisdictions, including Philadelphia.
That database led to the suspension of 13 Philadelphia police officers, and seven resigned.
News of the suburban posts generated a swift reaction from departmental leaders.
Upper Dublin Police Chief Francis Wheatley said Wednesday that a post by one of his officers saying officials in the county’s Department of Youth and Family Services would be better off if they “shot and killed all unfit parents” sharply contrasts with the views of the department.
“I’ve been in communication with the officer, and he’s extremely embarrassed by the post, which was made before his employment here,” Wheatley said. “But there were no excuses, he agrees it’s inappropriate, and it’s something we’re looking at as an agency.”
Wheatley said the department has begun an internal affairs investigation and said he could not comment on its status. He described the concerns raised by the postings as a “teachable moment” for everyone, not just law enforcement officers.
“Everyone should be aware of what they post and impact it has,” he said. “This is something we take very seriously.”
While some chiefs, including Wheatley, said the posts violated their departments’ social-media policy, others said the incident would prompt them to create new policies or strengthen existing ones.
S. Michael Murphy, the chief of Upper Moreland police, said Wednesday that his department is seeking input on such a policy after the completion of an internal investigation into a post by one of his patrol sergeants.
The sergeant had shared two memes on his Facebook page that were flagged by the researchers: one in which he spoke of being proud to be white, and another in which he warned against allowing “our government to flood our nation with Muslims.”
Of the posts, Murphy said: “The full context was that it was something that he received that he shared. He didn’t post it, didn’t comment, didn’t like it, didn’t even remember it, to be honest.”
Still, he said, “It’s disappointing, but he recognizes that it was poor judgment on his part, and has been dealt with.”
Many in the local criminal justice community were quick to condemn the offensive posts.
“In general, any sort of public statement or posting by law enforcement personnel that displays a bias against one or more groups can absolutely call into question the impartiality of that officer in matters involving the arrest or prosecution of members of those groups," said Dean Beer, the chief public defender in Montgomery County.
“These sorts of posts should be concerning to the townships that oversee these police departments, as they risk losing the faith and confidence of the very people they are sworn to protect if they do not address this issue head-on,” he added.